We don’t have to worry about making an impression or searching in vain for something we have in common. We simply accept the fact that connecting with another human, even for just a few minutes, will always be more meaningful than comparing a long list of accomplishments, the size of our house or our connections with what we deem powerful people.
I was reminded of this last Friday on the subway in New York City.
I was lucky enough to have a seat on the crowded train, but that seat was very, very small. My thigh was wedged up against that of the man next to me. Societal rules dictated that I ignore the contact, but apparently he didn’t abide by those rules and immediately engaged in conversation.
In a thick Hispanic accent, he asked if I lived in the city. When I told him no, he told me he didn’t he either. He had grown up in the Bronx, but he now lived in Kellogg, Michigan. He wanted to know where I do live. When I told him, he asked whether I lived near the ocean and if the winters are bad. apparently, he still hasn’t recovered from the one he experienced in Michigan.
He and his wife applauded as my daughter and her friend broke into song, and he told me that his cousin had started the children’s chorus in New York City. He gave me tips about navigating the subway system, and he shared his excitement at being back in “his city.”
At one point during our conversation, his wife urgently grabbed his arm and started speaking rapidly in Spanish.
“She wants to know if you are Polish,” he explained to me.
His wife gave me a brilliant smile, and I felt some sense of guilt asking “why?”
“Because you look like her good friend who is Polish,” he said. “Your features are the same.’
I glanced back at his wife who was still beaming and shook my head. “Not Polish,” I answered.
She nodded in understanding as the train grinded to a stop – our stop.
“Have a good life,” the man said as I stood to leave.
“You too,” I said.
That ended a generally unmemorable conversation, and I know I’ll never recognize the man if I ever see him again. He was just a random person on a train with whom I happened to share a moment in time.
Yet, ironically, I’ll never forget him because he gave me a little piece of himself to me.
He and his wife provided my daughter with an audience and applause in New York City. His wife seemed to think I must be a good person because I reminded her of a dear friend. Most importantly, the man took an interest in me not because society required that of him but because he recognized the importance of humanity. And because of that, I gave a little piece of myself to him.
I couldn’t ask for more.
He, a random stranger on a subway train, taught me how much total strangers can bring into our lives and how much sharing those encounters can bring into the lives of others. I’m looking forward to many more conversations with strangers.
The moment came at the end of a long weekend celebrating my daughter’s upcoming birthday. She, her best friend, her best friend’s mother and I packed a lot into 48 hours. By Sunday morning, when we were exploring Lower Manhattan, we had slowed considerably.
The city, on the other hand, wasn’t slowing down at all. People crowded narrow sidewalks under the watchful eyes of police officers on every corner. While the officers graciously responded to requests for photos with tourists, their ability to give good directions was questionable.
Despite their help, we were finally able to locate the Charging Bull on Wall Street. Since the bull had never been on my list of sites to see, I hadn’t expected the frenzy of people mobbing it for photos. Many were lined up behind the bull to touch its anatomically correct underside for good luck.
The eleven-foot-tall bronze sculpture is supposed to symbolize aggressive financial optimism and prosperity. Last year, when the Occupy Wall Street protests began, metal gates were set up around the bull to prevent it from harm. Now, the public can once again touch it, but judging by the police presence, there’s still concern about the safety of the more than 7,000 pound bull.
Personally, I think the concern about vandalism is a bit misplaced. I’m more worried about the almost worship-like reverence people demonstrate for an icon that represents an industry focused more on the value of money than the value of people.
Don’t get me wrong. I like money. I just think that, as a society, we’re too fixated on who has it and who doesn’t.
To me, the bull represents a culture rooted in money and the immense appeal that has. But when people go to great lengths to touch that lifestyle, they may miss seeing what’s really going on around them.
For example, just feet from the Charging Bull, there’s a garden full of rodents living off the crumbs of others. The mice live among the vivid red flowers in the circular garden around the fountain in Bowling Green Park where we ate our lunch.
What seemed like a quiet public garden was actually teaming with dozens, if not hundreds, of mice. When bits of bread, meat, tomatoes and even cucumbers dropped, they would scurry out from under the blossoms, grab their feast then rush back for cover.
Many of the people intent on enjoying the beautiful, late morning sunshine didn’t even notice the mice. Others were completely disgusted by them. No one wanted to touch them, and very few people wanted to feed them.
But my daughter and I were fascinated.
Although seemingly dependent on others for their livelihood, the mice certainly weren’t lazy. In fact, the were quite industrious. And even when vying for the same crumbs, they seemed to respect each other’s efforts.
That’s when I had my epiphany.
The mice represent all the low-income people who live and work right alongside those who are more financially secure and influential. They represent all those people on Wall Street who clean bathrooms and pick up trash instead of buying and selling stocks and bonds.
And even though they live in the shadow of a bull that people fondle for good luck, they also represent a great deal of dignity.